The test scores landed in the midst of a raging debate in Congress over renewal of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education law, and provided ammunition for those who want to see it extended with minimal changes.
"If we hadn't seen progress today, I think it might have been the death knell for renewing the law," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's definitely going to give the proponents some evidence that five years into the experiment, we're seeing some uptick in some parts of the country."
Bush welcomed the news, calling it proof that his policies are "producing positive results for students across the country."
The 2002 law requires schools to test students annually in math and reading. Schools that miss benchmarks face increasingly tough consequences, such as having to replace their curriculum, teachers or principals.
The national assessments, sometimes referred to as the nation's report card, provide the only uniform way to compare student progress in a variety of grades and subjects across the country. The tests were administered nationwide last winter.
Overall, math scores were up for fourth- and eighth-graders at every step on the achievement ladder:
Thirty-nine percent of fourth-graders were rated proficient or better in math, up from 36 percent two years ago, when the test was last given. Hitting the proficient mark is the goal, policymakers say.
Nearly a fifth of the fourth-graders tested still couldn't do basic-level work, such as subtracting a three-digit number from a four-digit one. But fewer students fell into that category than in 2005.
Among eighth-graders, 32 percent were proficient or better in math, up 2 percentage points from last time.
Seventy-one percent performed at the basic level or better, up from 69 percent two years ago.
The math scores have generally been on a steady upward trajectory since the early 1990s, well before the No Child Left Behind law was enacted.
"In many cases, the cumulative gain has been extraordinary," said Kathi King, a math teacher in Oakland, Maine who serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. "It's pretty clear that we must be doing something right."
Jim Rubillo, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says math teachers are getting more on-the-job training than they used to.
"Teachers know more about mathematics," he said. "They know more about how students learn mathematics."
There also is a widespread belief that it's easier for teachers to affect math scores than reading scores, because math is almost entirely a school-based subject while children get varying degrees of exposure to reading at home.
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In reading, fourth-grade scores were higher than they were two years ago. But eighth-grade reading scores only moved up a little.
A third of fourth-graders were proficient or better at reading
-- up 2 percentage points from 2005. Kids working at that level could identify a literary character's problem and describe how it was solved.
Sixty-seven percent of fourth-graders could do at least basic-level work, up from 64 percent last time.
There was no increase in eighth-graders working at the proficient or advanced levels. About a third could do that level of work, meaning they could identify the literary genre of a story, for example.
Seventy-four percent of eighth-graders could read at a basic level, up 1 percentage point from 2005.
Darvin Winick, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, said it was discouraging that there wasn't more progress in eighth-grade reading. He said boosting the reading skills of older children "should be the next national imperative."
David Gordon, a member of the testing board and the school superintendent in Sacramento, Calif., said educators and policymakers must focus on bringing up the scores of minority students. "We owe it to those kids to make them competitive," he said.
One goal of No Child Left Behind is to shrink the gap in math and reading scores between minority and white students.
The test results showed the reading achievement gap between black and white fourth-graders narrowed this year, as did the gap between black and white eighth-graders in math. But the gaps in other grades, as well as those between whites and Hispanics, held steady.
Students in the District of Columbia and the following states posted gains in math in both grades: Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.
In reading, students in the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii and Maryland saw their scores go up in both the fourth and eighth grades.
The states set their own policies regarding the percentage of special education and limited English speakers who take the tests.
Overall nationally, however, more kids with disabilities and limited English skills have been taking the tests in recent years.
On the Net:
Test results: http://nationsreportcard.gov/
[Associated Press; by Nancy
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